SAN FRANCISCO -- The morning after Felipe Alou finally made it to the postseason, he walked to Pac Bell with Marquis Grissom. Together, they'd been through the year (1994) a strike robbed Alou and the Montreal Expos of what seemingly was a certain place in the World Series. So the walk along the Embarcadero and China Basin this gorgeous September morning was one of the best Alou had taken since he left his promising Santo Domingo University Medical School career for baseball in 1957.
Felipe Alou has seen the Giants run away with the NL West.
When Alou arrived at his Pac Bell office, he stopped to look at the picture on the wall of that '94 Expo team.
"I saw Tom Glavine in West Palm Beach that September during the strike," Felipe recalled. "He told me there was no way the Braves could have caught us, that we were the best team in the National League. Other teams couldn't keep up with us, we were young and athletic, vibrant and daring, and yet all we have to show is this picture up on the wall.
"But I am happy for the success so many of these great players have had," Alou continued. "Look how many went on to play in the postseason."
Pedro Martinez. Ken Hill. Jeff Fassero. John Wetteland. Lenny Webster. Kirk Rueter. Cliff Floyd. Moises Alou. Larry Walker. Mike Lansing. Grissom, Gil Heredia. Rondell White.
At some point in the next eight seasons, all these '94 Expos participated in the postseason. So did many of their coaches, like Jerry Manuel, Joe Kerrigan, Tim Johnson and Tommy Harper. But not Felipe Alou. After paying his dues in the Expos organization and being buried in West Palm Beach because management thought people like Tom Runnells were more qualified to manage major-leaguers, he'd finally gotten his chance and ... poof ... it evaporated.
The next spring Alou was ordered to manage replacement players, an indignity that pained him as a labor leader of the '60s and '70s. When he managed another regular-season game, Walker, Wetteland, Hill and Grissom were gone, for what amounted to nothing, as player after player fled. Alou finally got to the point where he was going to leave and take the Dodgers' job, only to be convinced by then-owner Jeffrey Loria that grand days were coming.
Three weeks into that 2000 season, in his first trip to Pac Bell, Alou sat in the visiting manager's office on a Sunday morning, and said, "I was lied to." Two years later, Loria put his arm around Alou in the clubhouse and proclaimed that he was his manager for as long as he owned the team, only to be fired a week later.
"I won championships in the Dominican, Venezuela, Puerto Rico," Alou said. "But never in the U.S. This is very special, for now. The goal is to win everything."
That the Giants are into the playoffs and mano a mano with the Braves for the best record in the National League is a testament to Alou's remarkable comeback from forced retirement, then bench-coach duties in Detroit. It's testament to the man who changes the game more than any modern player, Barry Bonds. It also depended on the braintrust of Peter Magowan, Brian Sabean, Ned Colletti and Dick Tidrow, all of whom not only had the foresight and guts to hire Alou to replace Dusty Baker, but then went out and reconstructed a team that was eight outs away from the world championship, changing half the starting lineup, 60 percent of the rotation (trading two of the league's biggest winners, Russ Ortiz and Livan Hernandez) and having to replace Robb Nen ... and still running so far amok of the NL West that no one else was closer than eight games back after July 20.
"Did I get phone messages congratulating me?" Alou laughed. "No. I've been getting congratulatory calls since July."
What has happened to the Giants since Magowan bought them in December 1992 (preventing baseball's crack leadership from moving them to St. Petersburg, Fla.) and signed Bonds is astounding: only the Yankees and Braves have better records in the ensuing 11 seasons, which includes two last-place Giant finishes. And since opening Pac Bell, only the Yankees have outdrawn them.
In seven of the last nine seasons, the Giants have been in contention on the last weekend, and in their four Pac Bell seasons they have played two meaningless games -- in 2001 -- and in the second of those "meaningless games" Bonds hit his 73rd homer on the final day of the season.
One of the factors that has made the Giants so successful is that they have turned Pac Bell, which was designed by Magowan to give pitchers a chance, into the biggest homefield advantage in the league. Since Pac Bell opened, the Giants have had the best home record in the NL. Their one- and two-run game numbers are even more significant. In 2003, they are 20-3 at home in one-run games, 75-27 in the four years, as well as 39-19 in two-run games, a total of 114-46 in one- and two-runs games at home.
"It helps," said former Giant Bill Mueller, "that they have the only man on the planet who can hit home runs there at night." Ah, the Bonds Factor.
"Barry's the only guy who can hit the ball through the wind and keep it fair in right field, at least at night," J.T Snow said.
"We know to try to hit line drives and hit them hard and not worry about lofting home runs," Rich Aurilia said.
You have to take what the park gives. I see guys go nuts, like Larry Walker and Todd Helton. As a defensive player, you have no idea what balls are going to do, but at least we get used to it. ”
— Marquis Grissom on playing at Pac Bell.
"This was the perfect place for me because I'm a right-centerfield hitter," Grissom said. "You have to take what the park gives. I see guys go nuts, like Larry Walker and Todd Helton. As a defensive player, you have no idea what balls are going to do, but at least we get used to it."
Grissom said that Ray Durham never had to make adjustments, but that until recently, Edgardo Alfonzo struggled to get used to he winds and the elements. "Now," said hitting coach Joe Lefebvre, "he seems to have come to grips with the elements."
"The important thing is that our pitchers know how to pitch to this park," pitching coach Dave Righetti said. "As do our hitters. It's an advantage, no doubt about it."
The Giants have won 16 of their last 18 home series, and have effectively buried their NL West counterparts.
As well as they've played, the Giants know it is a long road to the World Series. Other than Jason Schmidt, the starting rotation is inexperienced with the exception of Rueter, who says he is now as healthy as he was early in the season -- and showed it by shutting out the Dodgers on Saturday night. Jerome Williams, who Righetti calls "special because he knows how to pitch, like Livan Hernandez, and has no fear," will be in the postseason rotation. Sidney Ponson, on the other hand, has been up and down. Tim Worrell has been a rock at the end of the bullpen.
They know that anyone from the Braves to the Cubs, the Marlins, Phillies or Astros, can make it to the World Series. "This is an unusual year," Alou said. "Everyone that makes it to the playoffs can win the World Series. It's all about dealing with adversity."
Something the grand old man of the sea has dealt with his entire life.
News and notes
Jerry Colangelo is faced with all sorts of cash strains, especially with all the deferred payments he has coming due, and he will explore trading Curt Schilling. There are reports -- including one from ESPN's Pedro Gomez -- that they will try to tag the contract of either Matt Mantei (because of Jose Valverde ) or Junior Spivey (because of Matt Kata) to the deal, much the way the Pirates tried to convince the Padres to take Jason Kendall if they wanted Brian Giles. The Red Sox, who talked to the Diamondbacks about Spivey before the trading and Aug. 31 deadlines, internally discussed trying to make a preemptive strike on Schilling in the waning weeks of the season, but decided against it. So watch for Vazquez and Schilling this winter. Colangelo has walked a narrow line on the debt/capital issue, and with all the deferred payments due, has to get the books straight. If the commissioner so chooses, he can squeeze all owners on the debt/capital issue, which might further impact free agency this winter. Florida, for instance, will be an interesting case to watch if the Marlins do not make the playoffs. Some in the organization worry that they may have to slash the budget despite the on-field gains.
Minaya to Reds?
While Cincinnati ownership initially looked to Braves assistant GM Frank Wren to take over as their GM, and they have interviews set up with several impressive candidates -- Twins assistant Wayne Krivsky and Marlins scouting director Dan Jennings, sources say that the pressure is mounting (especially with the Darrell "Doc" Rodgers discrimination lawsuit) to hire a minority, and that they may try to free Omar Minaya from Montreal.
With the Expos now playing all their games in Montreal, if Minaya stays, he undoubtedly will be forced to slash payroll. After all, what MLB told the players was if they would agree to play a portion of their games in Mexico or Puerto Rico, they would consider not paring the club further. But when the players asked for some assurance, they were refused.
Great for Javier Vazquez, anyway.
But all the players wanted was an assurance: we'll play the games in San Juan, but you keep the payroll the same -- using the average payroll percentage increase added on -- and make more reasonable travel arrangements. MLB refused to negotiate. The owners would only say they might not gut payroll if the players agree to the separate-but-equal plan. Period. To save a few bucks, the other owners want their conflicted ward to be the Tigers?
Braves sources insist that John Schuerholz has informed his people that they will have to whittle payroll again this winter, forcing another offseason of tough choices; they had tough ones last season, and won their 12th straight divisional title. While they will make a run at keeping Gary Sheffield, it appears that they will allow Hall of Famer Greg Maddux to go out onto the market. For a while, it appeared that either the Giants or Padres would make a run at Maddux, but Giants owner Peter Magowan this week said he will not be going after any major free agents. Meanwhile, the Padres are not going to have as much spending cash as originally thought, despite moving into their new stadium. They will likely settle on signing one of three veteran lefties -- David Wells, Sterling Hitchcock or Chuck Finley, all of whom have indicated interest in San Diego -- and make lesser pitching additions.
One of the reasons that Alex Rodriguez will likely end up with the MVP, despite the ongoing flap over the influence he reportedly exerted over owner Tom Hicks to sign players like Chan Ho Park who helped make them a last-place team, is that other than Jorge Posada, none of the contenders have one shining candidate. Boston's candidates are split between David Ortiz, Bill Mueller (who, along with Posada and A-Rod, are the candidates furthest above the league norms at their positions) and Nomar Garciaparra. The A's candidate is Keith Foulke and in talking to White Sox players, the feeling is that their team MVP is Carlos Lee. A-Rod lost out for the wrong reasons in '97. But I'm not sure Rodriguez deserves it any more than Garret Anderson.
Lou Piniella is pushing Rocco Baldelli for rookie of the year over Jody Gerut and Hideki Matsui, and he predicts "Carl Crawford has so much talent and is making so much progress in understanding the strike zone and in his plate discipline that I can see him winning a batting title, and it wouldn't shock me if it were next season."
But while Piniella enthusiastically is embracing the young players, one GM warns, "The problem is that as soon as they're ready to win, the players will leave. You can argue that the two best high school players of the last 15 years were A-Rod and Manny Ramirez, and as soon as their times came, they left their originally clubs."
Speaking of rookie of the year, when the Giants coaches were going over different votes, they unanimously agreed that Arizona's Brandon Webb is not only the clear-cut rookie of the year, but right at the top of the list among the league's best pitchers, period.
One of the most amazing comebacks of the second half was Tom Gordon. "He's better than ever," said Sandy Alomar. "He's throwing 98 (mph) with the great curveball, but now he's also come up with a nasty slider. He's as good as anyone in the league." And soon to strike it rich, in Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Boston or someplace.
Speaking of comebacks, is any better than Wilson Alvarez, and his two straight shutouts and sub-2.00 ERA? "He's the best left-hander we've faced this season," San Diego GM Kevin Towers said.
Bill Haselman says that if he is asked to catch in Triple-A next season he will, "but I will ask that if Roger (Clemens) wants to pitch in the Olympics that I be allowed to go. Roger and I have talked about it, and I would love the honor of catching him for our country."
Then there's David McCarty, the lefty-throwing, right-handed hitting first baseman who at 33 says he's "going to try to pull a Brooks Kieschnick next season. I'm going to work out at Berkeley all winter, and think I can make it and help as an 11th pitcher and hitter." Teammates say McCarty has a nasty running sinker, but needs work on his breaking ball.
As much as Brad Ausmus respects and likes his Astros teammates, don't be surprised if he signs as a free agent with the Padres because of his children and school.
There are just two many reports of friction between Jim Tracy and Dan Evans to dismiss them. The media hammering of Evans in L.A. and Dan O'Dowd in Colorado has led to speculation about each GM's future.
If you don't think what the Cubs have achieved is remarkable, going from 95 losses to contention, consider that they are the fourth team since the mid-60's to do so -- along with the '91 Orioles, '77 Brewers and '68 Washington Senators. The flip side is that if you're a fan of a team losing 95 games, don't get too excited about next year just because the Cubs turned it around. Remember, they had Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Kerry Wood and Matt Clement.
The White Sox may dislike what Doug Mientkiewicz said, but their problem is in the mirror. Because of Mientkiewicz the Twins are not only the best team in the American League in the second half but a very dangerous factor in the playoffs, be it against the Yankees, Athletics or Mariners. He is a great defensive first baseman and superb situational hitter, though his RBI totals may not be those of the prototypical first baseman. Also his .396 on-base percentage and 72/54 walk/strikeout ratio are remarkable for someone who was hurt much of the season.
Harvey Dorfman's books, from the "Mental Game of Baseball" to those on approaches to both pitching and hitting, have been the most thoughtful, practical treatises on dealing with the complex adversities of the sport. Now his "Coaching the Mental Game" is a must for managers and coaches at every level.
If you hear "Rockin' In the Free World" in the top of the first inning in any Red Sox home game, yes, the rendition is not off a Pearl Jam New York City or Mexico City bootleg from this summer, but a version by Theo Epstein's band Trauser, cut for an forthcoming CD to benefit The Jimmy Fund.